Chapter 2: Having a Humble Opinion of One’s Self
“If I truly knew myself I would look upon myself as insignificant…”
There are two ways to say, “I am God.” One way is the ultimate claim of hubris and the other way is the highest confession of humility. In this chapter, Kempis is directing us away from the former and into the arms of the latter.
Many, I believe, have confessed, “I am God” in utmost humility, but were unfortunately put to death by those who misunderstood their humility as satanic arrogance. In the tenth century, a Sufi Mystic named Al-Hallaj said these words and was crucified as a result. Like Christ, Al-Hallaj prayed for his executers during his crucifixion, saying, “Lord, have mercy on them for they do not understand.” Other mystics have suffered death from this same misunderstanding: a Christian Mystic named Marguerite Porete and a Jewish Mystic named Jesus of Nazareth.
Obviously, the distinction between the two ways of saying “I am God” needs to be clearly explained. The first way is to say, “I am God by nature” or “I am God apart from God.” This is the great sin of pride, which made the devil become the devil and made Adam fall. The second way is to say, “I am God by grace” or “I am God in God.” This is the great sign of humility, which stands in absolute awe of existence and joyfully gives thanks for the opportunity to be a part of God simply by existing.
The Bible upholds these two ways in Adam and in Christ. Thomas Merton upholds these two ways in the false self and the true self. Kempis upholds these two ways in the haughty self and the frail self. The haughty, false self often likes to think its God and that is the self that Kempis wants us to see as insignificant and even despicable. By doing so, we learn to get in touch with the true self, the imago Dei, the ground of our being and confess “I am God” with selfless, Christ-like humility.